Hey, Bill Keller —I Was Just Diagnosed With Cancer, You Want to Tell Me How to Suffer, Too?Meredith Carroll
According to Stephen King, I am a writer.
I mean, I kind of knew that already because, well, here I am writing, and here you are reading.
King told me I’m a writer (and, admittedly, lots of others) in a piece he penned called Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully, which said, in part:
“If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.”
(Not only am I a writer, but Stephen King also called me talented. Woo hoo!)
I don’t know if Lisa Adams has also ever paid a bill by spending money she’s earned by writing, but I do know that either way, she’s definitely a writer and she’s eminently talented. What I know also know is that she’s tremendously brave and giving of herself.
If you don’t know who Adams is, she’s been tweeting and blogging about her metastatic breast cancer for a while now. She’s been a writer at least long enough to tweet in excess of 166,000 times, and her blog is also rich with poignant, educational, articulate and, at times, desperately sad posts about her life, which for the past few years has been all-but consumed with cancer, especially now that she’s Stage 4.
The New York Times‘ Bill Keller wrote an op-ed piece about her earlier this week. It’s purpose wasn’t to admit or express admiration for what he’s learned from delving deeply into the experience of someone struggling to stay alive while perhaps simultaneously accepting what very well might be her ultimate doom.
While his column was titled “Heroic Praise,” don’t let the words deceive you; Keller neither regards Adams as a hero nor does he praise her. Far from it. In fact, his op-ed might be one of the single-most offensive pieces of writing I’ve ever come across. And I say that with full knowledge of the fact that Snooki has just published her fourth book.
NPR’s Linda Holmes wrote a spot-on piece about exactly why Keller’s piece was so atrociously abhorrent. In one part, she says:
Keller’s writing about Adams is full of little code words that downplay the significance of her writing, her readers and her community, undoubtedly unconsciously. She has “blogged and tweeted,” rather than “she has written.” Her audience is “rapt,” rather than appreciative or respectful. Her criticisms of elements of the breast-cancer lobby are “potshots.”
And that’s just the tip of the distasteful iceberg. For all the reasons Holmes lists, I’m sitting in solidarity with her, nodding my head and feeling angry tears burn down my cheeks on behalf of Adams.
My blinding rage is partly because in addition to writing a newspaper column for the past nine years (this one and now this one), I’m also a blogger, for sites including this one, this one and this one. Keller has a clear disdain for bloggers; his high-minded smirk at those who tweet and blog is impossible to ignore. But perhaps Keller’s piece wouldn’t have been such a punch in the gut had I not also been diagnosed with breast cancer on January 6.
Writing about my life — and getting paid for it — has been a way of my life for nearly a decade. I’ve written twice for The New York Times, but my career is more defined by the writing I’ve done in spaces like this one — writing in my voice, not one where I’m expected to be holier than thou. Much of the writing I’ve done has been challenging, scary, fun, therapeutic — and, of course it’s just my job, too. But when you start getting personal and sharing it, it’s goes a bit deeper. When you hit “publish” online and what you’ve written about your own life, it lives on. It reaches more people than ever before. It has the potential to touch people in a way that print never managed to do.
But whether you’re a writer in print, online, on Twitter or for your own blog, you will get judged. It’s inevitable. Especially when you write about yourself or your family. I assume Lisa Adams has pretty thick skin. She sounds tough. I know I’ve had no choice but to grow a pair or four. I put on my big-girl panties every day. I write to provoke, evoke and all other kinds of -ke words. I dish it out. I can take it.
That being said — just because you put it out there doesn’t mean you deserve to be Keller-ed, like Adams was. There might not be a code of conduct of writing about those who tweet, but there’s an unspoken code between human beings, especially how we treat those suffering and courageous enough to raise their voice when talking itself is possibly a chore. Although Keller apparently missed that memo from his high horse over there at the Gray Lady.
So what happens when I inevitably start writing about my breast cancer? Because I will. (Hey, look at that. I just did.) Or should I not? Because Bill Keller thinks writing about cancer as a “public service” is “a more complicated question.”
“Equal praise is due to those who accept an inevitable fate with grace and courage,” Steven Goodman, an associate dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine, said in Keller’s piece. The implication being, obviously, that it’s those who shut up and accept their diagnosis without trying to find some human connection and shared experiences that are to be most admired. Are we really trying to to say one way of dying or suffering is superior to another?
Is discussing my upcoming bilateral mastectomy off-limits? Will that make me weak? Am I less brave for admitting I’m dreading the pathology results after the surgery? That I’m worried my young daughters will look at my scars and have their own sense of femininity affected? Would I show more grace if I went back to simply writing humor pieces about my kids and making fun of my husband for buying me bad special-occasion gifts? If I ignored how sharing my journey might be a source of comfort to others — and cathartic for me? Would pretending I’m healthy mean mean I might not incur the wrath of Keller’s golden pen (or keyboard)? Or maybe since my cancer isn’t nearly as advanced as Adams that it would be more “honorable” by Keller’s standards for me to share it beyond my inner circle?
But is it really honorable/professional/dignified to rip apart a terminally ill writer’s work because you think the appropriate way for her to fade away is in silence?
I’ve run six marathons in my life. I’ve never won one. Some of them I barely finished. But I ran them, which, for me, was a big deal. I don’t feel any less of a runner because I didn’t place among the elite athletes. I’m proud of my great feats. Just like I’m proud of all the writing I do, especially if others choose to read it and if anything I write can make anyone else chuckle, feel less alone, learn something or otherwise distract them entertainingly when they need it most or expect it least.
I’ve learned in the past 10 days that no two cancers are alike. Same with writers. Some get paid with a check barely big enough to cover their utility bills and some fund a few mortgages with their royalties. Others are rewarded instead through a shared human experience. But despite the implication from Stephen King that perhaps you have to get paid in dollars to be thought of as worthy, it’s abundantly clear to me that Bill Keller is worthless. Attacking someone’s character for loudly choosing to fight for their life on their death bed? Maybe he’s cashing checks for doing that, but there’s no question he’s operating on a bankrupt soul.
In her essay on NPR.org, Holmes writes that “Bill Keller probably meant well.” I disagree. You rip apart a terminally ill woman for boldly and graciously letting others peek into a world that some know too much about, others are just learning about and yet others will happily never know from — and you don’t mean well. You’re just mean.
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